When we think of France during the mid to late 1700’s, the following image is probably what comes to mind:
Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s famous painting, “The Swing”, is perhaps the most famous example of rococo artwork, a movement that succeeded the Baroque period and was defined by luxury, frivolity, and bordered on absurdity. Artists during the Baroque period were concerned with order: symmetry, geometry, and neatness. However, the reactionary movement, which came into vogue during the reign of Louis XV in France, is perhaps the exact opposite. Rococo artists had an affinity for more oganic lines and shapes, more naturalistic composition, and excess, excess, excess. It is important to note that the rococo stretched beyond painting and into clothing, theatre, interior design, and furniture. It was, as we might say today, somewhat of a lifestyle.
Fragonard is one of the iconic painters of the period – and his “Swing” makes it obvious why. Fragonard’s composition is masterful: starting from the upper right corner of the frame, we see the rope first and from there he creates a perfect diagonal down the swing, over the woman, and straight to her husband who is reposed on the forest floor. Behind her, a lover hides in the bushes, hardly visible and shrouded from view – a sort of voyeur sneaking in to the scene. Besides the diagonal that draws our eye straight to the woman and her husband, the three subjects also create a literal love triangle – and near each man are cherubs, a traditional symbol of love and passion.
Fragonard creates an obvious sexual tension here: the young woman looks down at her husband, kicking her shoe (oh my!) off towards the cherub, a gesture of carefree sexuality. But below her, she knows she has two adoring fans, and she plays with them: note how her skirt is floating up, allowing the two men a surreptitious but clear view.
My favorite part of this painting, however, is the woman herself: she is like a giant, frosted cupcake in the middle of the composition, giving the work a light, breezy, airy feel that lends itself to the theme of carelessness and sexual love. I love the tension between the woman and her husband, the way he reaches his hand up and meets the diagonal, as if about to catch her, but she literally bounces between her two lovers.
Fragonard’s painting gives us a clear idea of the rococo ideals at work not only in “The Swing” but in many other pieces of from the period. The over-the-top feel of this piece shows how powerful the aristocracy was, and the ideal of excess and frivolity in reaction to the order and structure of the Baroque period. Although Fragonard does not completely throw out structure – this is evident in his careful composition and geometry in presenting his subjects – he creates shapes in the bodies and clothing that are more soft, round, and almost fluffy, giving an aura of carelessness and luxury. This period almost makes a caricature out of itself, but we love it – how can we not?